Clyde Edgerton: Translating memories into fiction
Is he just writing about himself?
The many fans of Wilmington-based author Clyde Edgerton often ask this question when they are reading his books a they come to parts that are just too real to be made up.
As Edgerton explains on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday afternoon at 5:00 p.m., his latest book, “Night Train,” is full of autobiographical connections.
Here are some examples:
Th two main characters of “Night Train” are teenaged boys living in Starke, a fictional Eastern North Carolina town, in the early 1960s. They work together in a furniture shop. Both are interested in music. One, Larry Lime Nolan, is black. He wants to play jazz like Thelonious Monk. The other, Dwayne Hallston, is white. He wants to be another James Brown. They have much in common, but rules of the segregated South make it hard for them to be best friends.
Edgerton acknowledges that the fictional Larry Lime Nolan is based on Larry Lime Hollman, a real black friend of Edgerton when the two were growing up near Durham.
Edgerton has lost touch with the real Larry Lime and hoped the book might get the two back together for a reunion. So far, no luck.
In the book, Dwayne forms a band that wins a chance to play on live television. Everybody in Starke finds a way to watch the evening they perform. In real life, in about 1959, Edgerton’s Dixieland band was chosen to perform on Jim Thornton’s “Saturday Night Country Style” on WTVD. Edgerton explains, “A lot of people remember. He would eat dog food. His sponsor was a dog food company and he would eat a little bit during the show.”
“The show came on at 11:30,” Edgerton remembers. “At 6:30, you got to the parking lot and Jim Thornton would audition the acts in a tent.”
Thornton asked Edgerton what his band wanted to play. “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In,” said Edgerton.
“We don’t do Dixieland, just country,” Thornton told the boys. But he relented and let them try out.
Then he said, “Do you have any more songs?”
Edgerton remembers that the band had only one other song, “Little Liza Jane,” which they played for Thornton and then on live TV, as the first non-country act ever to perform on Thornton’s program.
Later, in the early 1960s, Edgerton was part of a rock band. Like the fictional Dwayne, Edgerton’s band’s leader, Dennis Hobby, wanted to be just like James Brown, cape and all.
Even the book’s villain, the racist Flash Acres, has experiences based on Edgerton’s. Edgerton remembers how the illnesses and deaths of his parents touched him. So when Flash’s mother is seriously ill, Edgerton has Flash struggle, showing some genuine human love, to arrange for her care. “I wanted to examine the humanity of this man. If he is only a racist without redeeming qualities, then it comes across flat.”
Edgerton does not apologize for the connections to his real life. He says that “Night Train” is autobiographical in the ways that “I think most of my books are… I sort of see myself as a translator. I have my own life and experiences … and, if and when I do write about my own experiences, they tend to be flat. But if I fictionalize them, by using my own experience, my own observations, and my imagination together, then I can come up with something that’s readable and perhaps a bit more exciting than my own life. So that’s the challenge—to translate.”
If this kind of translating is one of the ways Edgerton develops his magical stories and characters, I have just two words for him: